Just when I think I understand you decadent Westerners, the theatre gods send me to another farce, to remind me that I definitely don’t. But even my sullen Eastern European brain can’t help but acknowledge a little serotonin surge at the awesome spectacle of Sir Kenneth Branagh dropping his trousers again, and again (and again) in this most retro of comedies.
‘The Painkiller’ – director Sean Foley’s adaptation of a play by Francis Veber – features mistaken identities galore, lashings of camp innuendo, plenty of dodgy ‘foreign’ accents, lots and lots of door-slamming, a cartload of mouldy old puns and endless scenes of Branagh and co-star Rob Brydon trying to shuffle across rooms with their trews round their ankles. Each of which made me want to bellow ‘PULL THEM UP THEN TRY AND WALK!’
Revived for Branagh’s year-long run of shows at the Garrick (it premiered in Belfast in 2011), it concerns an elaborate series of mishaps that pile up after Branagh’s assured but unimaginative hitman Ralph takes a hotel room adjoining that of suicidal small-time photographer Dudley (Brydon). Pitched somewhere between a ‘Carry On’ film and ‘Fawlty Towers’, it’s funnier than the former and generally less funny than the latter. It’s also worth noting that while it’s a homage to the sort of ribald comedies that dominated the West End for much of the twentieth century, there are none of the most egregious offences – overt racism or sexism – in place.
Instead, you essentially get the spectacle of two veteran actors having the time of their lives making tits out of themselves – and I’ll mostly take that quite happily.
Ralph’s room overlooks a courthouse, where he is to take out a high-profile defendant. Separated only by a locked interconnecting door (eventually opened by Mark Hadfield’s camp porter) is the room where despairing Dudley has decided it’s time to end it all, following the collapse of his marriage. But his bungling attempts to top himself threaten to attract the police, so Ralph concludes he’ll have to do something about this noisy irritant.
Skip forward about half an hour, and Ralph is off his face on an accidentally ingested cocktail of prescription drugs, which means he is now falling into things and adopting various accents (of varying political correctness) – all to the general delight of puppyish Dudley who believes he is having fun with a new best friend.
You shouldn’t come here looking for cutting-edge humour, but Branagh and Brydon have a lovely chemistry playing, in essence, two men going through their respective midlife crises. And it’s certainly the most vigorous comedy I’ve seen since ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’. Branagh, in particular, is firing on all cylinders as he flails about the room, at one point appearing to move about on an invisible bicycle, later beating up a police officer while still whacked off his gourd.
Even if you don’t consider the pratfall to be the high watermark of human achievement, you’ll find the sheer chutzpah here pretty irresistible.